The Challenge of OER Sustainability

Sustaining the outputs of projects and programmes beyond their initial phase of funding is a weel kent problem but it is one that we still struggle to solve. Back in 2009 when Cetis were working with Jisc to scope the technical guidelines for the forthcoming UKOER Programme we attempted to address this issue by recommending that projects deliver their content through multiple platforms. One of the few actual requirements among the programme guidelines was that projects must also deposit their content in JorumOpen, in order to act as a safeguard against resources being lost:

Delivery Platforms

Projects are free to use any system or application as long as it is capable of delivering content freely on the open web. However all projects must also deposit their content in JorumOpen. In addition projects should use platforms that are capable of generating RSS/Atom feeds, particularly for collections of resources e.g. YouTube channels. Although this programme is not about technical development projects are encouraged to make the most of the functionality provided by their chosen delivery platforms.

OER Programme Technical Requirements

Six years down the line and attrition is taking the inevitable toll. Several of the sites and repositories that hosted UKOER content have disappeared and the sustainability of the content hosted by the national Jorum repository remains uncertain following Jisc’s announcement in June that it intended to retire Jorum and “refresh its open educational resources offer”.

These problems were brought into sharp focus by Viv Rolfe (@VivienRolfe) of the University of West England this week when she tweeted

Viv’s tweet sparked a lengthy discussion on twitter that drew in several of the community’s most incisive critical thinkers on open education including Simon Thomson (@digisim), Pat Lockley (@Solvonauts, @patlockley), David Kernohan (@dkernohan), Leo Havemann (@leohavemann) and Theresa MacKinnon (@WarwickLanguage).  

The wide ranging discussion touched on a number of thorny issues relating to OER preservation and sustainability.  I’ve created a Storify of the entire discussion here: The Challenge of OER Sustainability

Self-hosting was seen as one alternative to using institutional or national repositories to host OER, with WordPress being a popular platform in some quarters.  David Kernohan took this one step further, asking if individuals who want to self-host OER should run their own repositories. While this is an interesting idea it was regarded as a rather heavy weight solution to the problem and Pat argued that repositories are the wrong tool for the job as they sit outside standard academic digital literacies.

The discussion then turned to cross-publishing. The LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) approach to digital preservation was regarded as one good way to ensure that content does not disappear.  However if content is deposited in multiple places and scattered across the web then other issues arise relating to how to find and curate content. Pat commented that multiple deposit may solve “lost hosting” but complicates “find”. Aggregators and the dark arts of search engine optimisation clearly play a role here, however search engines’ ability to accurately interpret licence information is still problematic.

The Solvonauts aggregator and OER search engine represents a good example of one sustainable approach to locating OER content.  Solvonauts has aggregated 141867 OERs, it costs around $50 a year to run and the code and database are shared on Github. If Pat falls under a bus tomorrow, it’s business as usual for Solvonauts. (Pat’s phrase, not mine.  Please don’t fall under a bus Pat!)  Of course Solvonauts can only find content that it is there; it can not solve the problem of how to sustain content if servers are switched off or repositories shut down with little or no warning, which brings us right back to the issue of repository sustainability.

Leo Havemann commented that the main problem is lack of funding rather than the failure of repositories per se and Simon Thomson suggested MERLOT as a good example of a sustainable OER repository.  This resulted in a rather heated discussion about whether MERLOT can be regarded as an OER repository as not all the content is CC licensed and there is a cost associated with deposit.  Simon has already blogged an excellent summary of this discussion and the points he made regarding MERLOT which you can find here: The challenges of maintaining OER repositories, but why we must never stop trying.

Ultimately there is no simple answer to the question posed by David.

 Where should I put my OER so people can find and use it?

Pat’s answer may suggest a way forward in the short term.

I would place content into any platform which supported some licensing, or was free hosting, caveated with a bulk download option should the platform close.

Even if there is no easy answer, sustainability of OER is a pressing issue that requires immediate attention and a collective response from the community.  Digital curation and sustainability of OERs may represent a challenge, but as Simon pointed out in his own blog post, we must never stop trying.

Can open stop the future?

wikipedia_politics_opennessLast week Catherine Cronin brought Alice Marwick’s review of Nathaniel Tkacz’s Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness, to my attention and it’s left me with a lot of food for thought.  I haven’t had a chance to read Tkacz’s book yet but there are a couple points that I’d like to pick up on from the review, and one in particular that relates to the post I wrote recently on Jisc’s announcement that it intended to “retire” Jorum and replace it with a new “App and Content store” : Retire and Refresh: Jisc, Jorum and Open Education.

I tend to shy away from socio-political discussions about the nature of openness as I find that they often become very circular, and very contentious, very quickly.  I do agree with Tkacz and Marwick that openness is inherently political but I certainly don’t believe that openness is intrinsically neoliberal. To my mind this analysis betrays a rather US centric view of the open world and fails to take into consideration many other global expressions of openness.

If I’m interpreting Marwick correctly, Tkacz also seems to be arguing that openness must necessarily be non-hierarchical, which is an interesting perspective but not one that I wholly buy into.  While I think we need to be aware of the dangers of replicating existing hierarchical power structures in open environments, I think it’s somewhat idealistic to expect open initiatives to flourish without any power structures at all. So yes, there are hierarchical power structures inherent in Wikipedia, but I think there are many more egregious examples of openwashing out there.

The point that really struck me in Marwick’s review was the reference to Jonathan Zittrain’s 2008 book The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It  in which the author charts the evolution from generative to tethered devices.

The Future of the Internet“The PC revolution was launched with PCs that invited innovation by others. So too with the Internet. Both were generative: they were designed to accept any contribution that followed a basic set of rules (either coded for a particular operating system, or respecting the protocols of the Internet). Both overwhelmed their respective proprietary, non-generative competitors, such as the makers of stand-alone word processors and proprietary online services like CompuServe and AOL. But the future unfolding right now is very different from this past. The future is not one of generative PCs attached to a generative network. It is instead one of sterile appliances tethered to a network of control.”

The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It
Jonathan Zittrain

Marwick elaborates on the this generative – tethered dichotomy and situates it in our current technology context.

“Those in the former (generative) group allow under-the-hood tinkering, or simply messing with code, are championed by the maker movement, and run on free and open-source software. Tethered devices, on the other hand, are governed by app stores and regulated by mobile carriers: this is the iPhone model….The most successful apps of today, from Uber to Airbnb to Snapchat, are participatory and open only in the sense that anyone is free to use them and generate revenue for their owners.

Most of these apps use proprietary formats, don’t play well with others, make it difficult for users to port their content from one to another, and are resolutely closed-source.”

Open Markets, Open Projects: Wikipedia and the politics of openness
Alice E. Marwick

Now, I’m not sufficiently familiar with Zittrain’s work to know if his thinking is still considered to be current and relevant, but his warnings about a future of closed technologies tethered to a network of control, rather amplified the alarm bells that have been ringing in my head since Jisc announced the creation of their App and Content store.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the idea of an App Store sits very uneasily with my conception of open education.  Also I can’t help wondering what role, if any, open standards will play in the development of the new app store to prevent lock-in to proprietary applications and formats.

Zittrain suggested that developing community ethos is one way to “stop the future” and counter technology lockdown.

“A lockdown on PCs and a corresponding rise of tethered appliances will eliminate what today we take for granted: a world where mainstream technology can be influenced, even revolutionized, out of left field. Stopping this future depends on some wisely developed and implemented locks, along with new technologies and a community ethos that secures the keys to those locks among groups with shared norms and a sense of public purpose, rather than in the hands of a single gatekeeping entity, whether public or private.”

The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It
Jonathan Zittrain

I absolutely agree that when it comes to the development of education content and technologies we need a community ethos with shared norms and a sense of public purpose, but to my mind it’s increased openness, rather than more locks and keys that will provide this safeguard.  In the past Jisc played an important public role by fostering communities of practice, supporting the development of innovative open technologies and sharing common practice and I sincerely hope that, rather than becoming a single gatekeeper to the community’s education content and applications, it will continue to maintain this invaluable sense of public purpose.

Open Education Policy – blocked pipelines and infinite loops

Doesn’t time fly?  It’s almost a fortnight since I joined colleagues at what has now become an annual event in the Scottish education technology calendar; the ALT Scotland one day conference. One of the things I really like about this event is that it consistently brings together colleagues from all sectors of Scottish education to discuss issues relating to open education technology, policy and practice. The theme of this year’s event was Sharing Digital Practice and Policy in Scottish Education, and it was highly appropriate that it was hosted by Glasgow Caledonian University as they have just approved their new institutional OER policy.

Unfortunately I haven’t had the chance to put together a storify or write a full summary of the event, however thanks to Martin Hawksey’s fine audio visual skills you can view the entire livestream of the event on the ALT YouTube channel here: AM / PM.  I do want to pick up on one of the themes that emerged from several presentations though and that is the problem of blocked pipelines and infinite loops.

Infinite Loop II by Faruk Ateş, CC BY-NC 2.0

Infinite Loop II by Faruk Ateş, CC BY-NC 2.0

Marion Kelt, Senior Librarian: Digital Development and Information Literacy at GCU, was the first to raise this issue in her talk about the lengthy process of getting GCU’s Open Educational Resources policy approved by the university. At one stage this involved being referred to an institutional IPR policy that she eventually discovered did not actually exist! This is just one example the kind of infinite loop it’s very easy to get drawn into when trying to introduce new policy.  Often it’s unclear which management structures within the institution have the authority to ratify new policy, particularly if that policy has evolved from the ground up. The danger is that draft documents get endlessly stuck in limbo, waiting for approval that never comes. Thankfully Marion is nothing if not persistent and after going round these loops several times she was eventually successful in getting the policy approved. GCU’s Open Educational Resources Policy, which is based on the University of Leeds‘ OER policy, can be accessed here.

Joe Wilson, of the College Development Network, highlighted a similar infinite loop. When he was appointed as Chief Executive of CDN earlier this year, Joe made it his number one priority to encourage the FE sector to sign up to the principles of the Scottish Open Eduction Declaration, an initiative he has been involved with since its inception in 2013. Joe began by taking the relevant papers to the Committee of Regional Chairs, which is composed primarily of deputy principals of colleges.  They were broadly supportive but advised taking the Declaration to the Principals’ Forum. The Principals’ Forum were also very interested and keen to do something, but they in turn suggested that it was the Government’s responsibility to take a stance on open education.  Suffice to say, while there appears to be some interest in adopting open education principals and practice in the FE sector, there are still a  lot of blockages in the pipeline. As Joe said “we’re still at the stage of I’m not going to show you mine unless you show me yours”. However I’m quite sure that if anyone has the vision and determination to clear these blockages, it’s Joe.

Infinite Loop by Dave Walker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Infinite Loop by Dave Walker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Which brings me on to my own infinite loop…Earlier this year the ALT Scotland SIG Committee brought the Scottish Open Education Declaration to the attention of Angela Constance, Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning.  We were pleased to receive the following positive and encouraging response from the Higher Education and Learner Support Division.

“The Open Education Declaration and its aim at implementing wider and more equitable access to education and to lead the way in Europe is a noble initiative with potential to enhance diversity as well as many of our key aims, including widening access to education through free access to high quality education and to redraw traditional boundaries between informal and formal learning.”

In addition to highlighting the role of the Open University’s Opening Educational Practices in Scotland Project, the response noted that

“SFC also funds Jisc which supports the development and use of Open Educational Resources through platforms, repositories, and projects.”

However Jisc’s recent announcement that it will be closing Jorum, the UK OER repository for higher and further education and the skills sector, and “refreshing” their approach to open educational resources, does rather beg question who, if anyone, is supporting open education in Scotland?

I have no immediate answers as to how we break out of these infinite loops and clear the blockages in policy pipelines.  Sometimes it’s a case of identifying exactly where the blockage lies, sometimes it’s more to do with identifying that one person who has both the vision, the authority and the determination to make a stand and take the decision to move things forwards.

There is one blockage I have been able to clear however.  During the meeting several colleagues asked how much longer the Scottish Open Education Declaration would be available only as a draft.  They explained that the Declaration’s draft status was preventing them from using the document to promote open education within their own institutions as the draft status meant that senior managers were unwilling to give it serious consideration.   As there have been no further comments on the Declaration since draft 0.2 was published towards the end of last year, the status of the document has now been updated from draft 0.2 to edition 1.0. Hopefully I’ll be publishing a short post on this update over at the Open Scotland blog shortly.

Retire and Refresh: Jisc, Jorum and Open Education

Jorum_logo_blueYesterday Jisc announced its intention to retire Jorum in September 2016 and “refresh its open educational resources offer”.   I’ve been involved with Jorum, in one capacity or another, since 2002 when Moira Massey and Sarah McConnell at EDINA, started drafting a proposal for a repository as part of the Jisc eXchange for Learning Programme (X4L), and I’ve also been a member of the Jorum Steering group since it was set up in 2005 to help guide Jorum through its transition to service phase.

I’ve seen Jorum develop through many iterations and technical incarnations and it’s been a long and interesting journey. There have been many stumbling blocks along the way, but we’ve seen real progress and have learned a great deal about the practicalities of education resource description, discovery and management. Both the education and technology landscapes have changed fundamentally since Jorum came into being thirteen years ago and it hasn’t always been easy for the service to adapt to those changes as quickly as the sector sometimes expected.  Despite these challenges, all members of the Jorum Team, both past and present, always remained fully committed to providing a useful service to the community and have shown huge dedication to supporting their users, so I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank every one of them for their efforts.

That said, I do have some concerns about Jisc’s continued involvement in the open education space.  As a result of the Jisc / HEA UKOER Programmes and it’s many precursors, Jisc developed an enviable international reputation for open education innovation.  The fact that there is still a lively and active community of practice around UKOER is testament to the success of the programmes in raising awareness of open education and starting to embed open education practice across higher education.  There’s sill a long way to go of  course, few institutions are actually creating open educational resources in any great volume, evidence of reuse is still slim, and we have so much more to learn about how teachers and learners find, share, and use educational resources.  There is also a danger that the open education community is singing to the choir rather than preaching to the masses.  (Obligatory religious metaphor; cf John Robertson)

University of Leeds Jorum Window

University of Leeds Jorum Window

However there does seem to be a resurgence of interest in sharing resources in both the further and higher education sectors over the last year.  HE institutions are starting to explore the potential value of developing open education policy and Glasgow Caledonian University recently became the first HEI in Scotland to approve an institutional OER policy, based incidentally on a University of Leeds policy originally created as part of the UKOER programme. GCU also plan to implement their shiny new policy through the creation of an institutional OER repository based on the University of Southampton’s EdShare platform.   Leeds are still actively supporting the sharing and discovery of open educational resources through their institutional Jorum Window, a valuable service provided by Jorum that other institutions were beginning to explore. The University of Edinburgh also has an ambitious vision for open education and intends to develop frameworks to enable staff to publish and share their teaching and learning materials as OER in order to enrich the University and the sector.  In addition, the OER Conferences, now supported by ALT, continue to go from strength to strength, despite many predicting their demise once the UKOER funding ran out.

There is also increasing interest in sharing resources in the further education sector, partly as a result of the FELTAG recommendations, the full impact of which have yet to be felt.  Following an ambitious programme of regionalisation in Scotland, colleges are starting to explore the potential of sharing resources within consortia.  This may not be the fully open sharing that many in the sector aspire to, but its a good start.  There is some way to go in the FE sector before the culture of competition transforms into a culture of cooperation and collaboration and this is where the support of organisations such as Jisc and the College Development Network is invaluable.

I’m not going to comment too much on the Jisc App and Content Store yet, as it’s clearly very early days and, as with any agile development, I expect it will go through many iterations before it sees the light of day.  However I will say that talk of customers and App Stores rather concerns me as it brings to mind commercial associations that sit rather uneasily with my conception of open education.

There is still a huge amount of open education knowledge and expertise within Jisc, not just within the Jorum team, but also across their account managers, subject specialists and senior co-design managers, and I sincerely hope that Jisc will build on the invaluable expertise of their own staff and colleagues across the sector to ensure that their new refreshed approach to open education really does meet the changing digital demands of the Further and Higher Education community.

A Good Week for Open Education?

Because I am a true believer in the power of reusable, repurposeable, remixable open content I have repurposed part of this blog post from an e-mail David Kernohan sent to the OER-Discuss mailing list earlier this week titled “A big week for open learning in the UK”.  Cheers David! 🙂

There’s certainly been an explosion of activity in the open education space this week; in addition to the announcement of the winners of the Reclaim Open Learning Contest, the publication of the BIS Maturing of the MOOC report, and the launch of FutureLearn, all of which David mentioned, this week also saw higher education institutions in Wales announce their support for open education principals, the Open Knowledge Conference, which took place in Geneva, featured a panel on Open Education, and, back in the UK, Jorum relaunched.  Okay Jorum actually relaunched last week but it still good news so lets not be pedantic!

 Welsh HEIs Adopt Open Educational Principals

To my mind this is possibly the most significant and encouraging development of the week.  Times Higher Education reported than the vice chancellors from Wales’ eight universities would be committing to adopt open educational principles to support open education practice and the use of open education resources. The aim of this initiative is to encourage universities to share content, mostly in the form of lecture notes and course materials, which can be reused across the sector and beyond.  The resources will be hosted by individual institutions but a dedicated portal will provide access to these materials and act as “showcase doorway”.   In an e-mail to OER-Discuss, Hayden Blackey, Prifysgol De Cymru,  confirmed that  Higher Education Wales had agreed to a  “common statement of principals which will be available form their website shortly.” You can read the full THE article here: Welsh universities commit to sharing course material online

I’m hugely encouraged by this very positive step taken by the Welsh Higher Education sector, this is exactly the kind of commitment we hoped to encourage through the Open Scotland initiative.  I sincerely hope that Scottish Higher Education is taking note, and will be inspired to follow suit.

Reclaim Open Learning Innovation Contest

Congratulations to DigiLit Leicester and Phonar Ed at Coventry University, who won two of the five prizes awarded at the Reclaim Open Learning Innovation Contest.  The contest, which is sponsored by  MacArthur Foundation, the Digital Media and Learning Hub, and the MIT Media Lab, aims to embrace a model of open learning that focuses on the use of openly licensed reusable content and collaborative modes of peer to peer learning.

The Maturing of the MOOC

The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills published their literature review of massive open online courses and other forms of open distance learning: The Maturing of the MOOC by Stephen Haggard.  So far, I have only had time to briefly skim the review, but it looks like it will be a valuable addition to the growing corpus of reports, commentary and data relating to all aspects of MOOCs.  It’s also great to see that the review makes frequent reference to the Cetis whitepaper by Li Yuan and Stephen Powell MOOCs and Open Education: Implications for Higher Education.

FutureLearn Launch

FutureLearn launched with much fan-fair and equal parts enthusiasm and cynicism from the ed tech community.  I’m not going to say too much about the launch as so many blog posts and reports have already covered that ground. On balance the first courses look rather interesting, though I am curious to see how they will distinguish themselves from other MOOC offerings.  I still find it rather disquieting that the whole FutureLearn brand seems to be predicated on exclusivity, which rather calls into question their commitment to openness.  Of course this is a criticism that can be levelled at other MOOC providers, but it does rather beg the question,  can you be open and exclusive?  I really don’t know the answer to that.

David’s e-mail to OER-Discuss kicked off a very interesting discussion on FutureLearn’s decision to include the following prohibition in their Code of Conduct :

“As the FutureLearn community’s first language is English, I will always post contributions in English to enable all to understand, unless specifically requested to do otherwise.”

Kate Bowles has written a thoughtful blogpost about this issue here: For all to understand, and you can follow the OER-Discuss conversation here.

New Jorum Launches

I’ve been involved with Jorum since it was just a glimmer of a proposal in the project team’s eye so it’s great to see that the service has come this far, and is continuing to go from strength to strength.  Jorum relaunched at the beginning of the month with a new look and a host of new features that will make it easier for users to search for and select resources.  In addition, new reporting features have been added to provide access to resource usage data that can be viewed and exported in a range of formats. And last, but by no means least, the long awaited Jorum REST API, which will provide direct access to content usage data and metadata,  will be released in October.

Open Knowledge Foundation Conference

I wasn’t able to attend the OKFN Conference in Geneva, but I followed as much of the live stream as I could online.  I was very pleased to see that one of the topics covered by the conference this year was Open Education.  Doug Belshaw facilitated a panel that included Jackie Carter of Mimas and Mathieu d’Aquin of the Open University, which looked at facets of open education – resources, data and culture.